Once Upon a Winter's Eve (Spindle Cove 1.5)

Page 8

She nodded. “Was I wearing my ivory crepe, or the blue percale?”
Christian churned the air with his hands. “I don’t know… The blue? No, the ivory. ”
“Neither. I was wearing my Indian yellow silk. ”
“I didn’t even know you had an Indian yellow silk. ”
“Precisely. You wouldn’t know. You never noticed me at all. I watched you chase after the fancy ladies during your breaks from Oxford. And I heard the scandalous rumors our sisters traded during their debut season. ” She steadied the gun and took a step toward him. “So don’t lie to me now. You can’t make me believe I’m the only woman you ever wanted. ”
“You’re right. You’re right. I wouldn’t even try. ” Doing his best to ignore the pistol, he looked her in the eye. “But I can tell you—in perfect honesty, Violet—you’re the only one I ever loved. ”
She remained absolutely still. “Loved. You expect me to believe that you loved me. ”
“Yes. ”
“Since when?”
“I… I don’t know the precise moment it started, darling. ”
“Because it never truly started at all. ”
“Wait, wait. Give me this much. My uncertainty has the ring of honesty, doesn’t it? If I were lying, I would take the trouble to invent a specific story. ”
“Perhaps you exhausted your imagination with the Breton farmhand bit. ” She motioned with the pistol. “Turn and walk. Down the corridor. I’ll be right behind you. ”
He threw a glance over his shoulder. “Why?”
“I want answers from you, but I don’t trust you in this room. Too many weapons. ”
As he turned, he muttered, “Clever girl. ”
She kept the gun pressed against his back as they marched down the corridor. With every step, he racked his brains for the right words to say.
Dash it, Christian couldn’t recall precisely when he’d begun to feel this deep affection for the quiet, unassuming girl next door. He could name the day he’d grown aware of it, but he suspected that tale would have only increased her pique.
The story involved another woman.
And it took place in a ballroom, much like the one Violet marched him to right now. At one of his parents’ more scandalous masquerades, he’d been flirting with some demimonde—for no particular reason. She was a painted bulls-eye, and all the young men took a shot at her. And she’d said to Christian, with the smile of a practiced coquette, I shan’t waste my time with you. You’re a puppy. You’ll pant and slaver over me for a while, but then you’ll grow up and be faithful to a girl like her.
And she’d tipped her fan toward the corner occupied by Violet Winterbottom.
Marry? Marry Violet Winterbottom?
Christian had laughed long and loudly, dismissing the notion out of hand. But the notion, impertinent thing that it was, wouldn’t be dismissed. It clung to him, hovered around him like a puff of cheroot smoke as he went about his nights of revelry with friends. Eventually, he’d stopped staying out so late and started waking earlier to take the dogs for their morning run.
And to see Violet.
Because suddenly, he’d begun to truly see Violet. To appreciate what a clever, thoughtful woman she’d become. She had a real gift for languages—which he recognized, being quite handy with them himself. And she liked a challenge.
Violet’s company, he found, was a stimulating way to begin each morning. And one particular morning when her sister’s terrier led them a merry chase through the bushes—after which, he’d admired Violet flushed and panting, eyes sparkling with good-natured laughter despite her ripped flounce and muddied hem… That was when he’d begun to think Violet’s company could be a stimulating way to end each night.
Soon, he could think of little else. Having her in his bed, and in his life. Not just the public portion of his life—the life composed of dinner parties and social calls and walks in the sunlit square. But the hidden, quiet, darker parts of it, as well.
“Your boots and coat are there. ” She waved the pistol toward the corner. “Go ahead, put them on. ”
He complied. “Violet, I did have intentions toward you. Good ones. I had plans of courting you properly, in time. ” He broke off momentarily as he wrestled with his boots. “I didn’t see any reason to rush. But then…”
He slowly lowered his booted foot to the floor.
“Frederick?” she asked softly.
He nodded. “Frederick. ”
Christian drew a steadying breath, remembering the day he’d jostled for position before a brick wall and scanned a list of the fallen for his brother’s name. There it had been, in black letters on white. Lord Captain Frederick St. John Pierce. Numbness had struck Christian like a mallet. In some ways, he was still reeling.
He swallowed a lump of emotion. “You were such a friend to us, when we lost him. ”
He recalled the way she’d come by the house, slipping in like one of the family. She sat with his sisters in the drawing room, reading aloud from books or newspapers and helping them receive the many callers stopping by to pay condolences. And every morning, she took their dogs out for a run.
“I tried to be a friend to the family. ” Her tone altered. She lowered the pistol. “But I was mostly worried for you, Christian. You changed, and I was so concerned. ”
He had changed. For the better, in most ways. His father had always emphasized the importance of service to Crown and country. George was the heir; Frederick had his commission. But Christian’s facility with languages had lent itself to a particular form of service: espionage. Not much glamour or excitement in translating political pamphlets and the occasional intercepted letter, but Christian had been happy to do a small part in the background.
He worked his arms into the sleeves of his still-damp coat. “I’d been working for the Crown for some time. Mostly written translations, all conducted in Town. But after they got Frederick—”
“Was he a spy, as well?”
“No, no. Frederick was always just as he seemed. An honest, honorable fellow. He should not have been taken so young. When we received word of his death, I immediately began to press for a field assignment. ” He chuckled. “And they gave me one, quite literally. I’m assigned to a field of wheat. The landowner is sympathetic to England, and I mostly do farm work. Now and then, I help parcels and papers pass from one point to the next. It’s not much, but…”
“But what?”
He passed a hand over his face. “After Frederick, I just couldn’t sit on my arse in London anymore. I had to do something. Can you understand?”
Her expression softened. “I can understand. And I would have understood, if only you’d told me everything. ”
“I was sworn to silence. Only my father knows the truth. ”
“I wouldn’t have told a soul. I can keep secrets all too well. I never told a soul about… about us. ”
“I know. ”
He closed the distance between them and silently invited her to sit on the floor. There, in the center of the empty ballroom. She folded her emerald silk skirts beneath her legs and rested the pistol in her lap. He sat across from her, propping his arm on one bent knee.
“Violet, the way I treated you was unforgivable. I’ve lived with the guilt of it ever since. I knew I was leaving. I didn’t feel I could make you any promises, but I couldn’t bring myself to depart without holding you, just once. I didn’t intend for it to go that far, but in the moment…” He rubbed his face. “Honestly, I suspect part of me wanted to ruin you. So you’d still be there for me when I returned. It doesn’t say much for my moral fibre, but it’s the truth. ”
“That’s horrible. ”
“I know. ” He winced. “I don’t know how I can ask you to forgive me. I really was a shameless devil. And of all the ways I failed you…it wasn’t even good. ”
“Well. ” Her mouth twisted at the corner. ??
?It wasn’t bad. ”
He laughed a little, just to mitigate the sting to his pride. And then the memories of her—of that night—surged to the forefront of his mind, chasing out every other emotion. How she’d laid a hand to his cheek, just at the moment they’d joined. The sweetest gesture, layered atop the purest bliss.
Nudging aside the silk of her hem, he slid a single fingertip along her stockinged ankle. Beneath his touch, she felt so sleek, so sweet. In his misspent youth, Christian had skimmed his fingertips over many a silk stocking, but now… Almost a year had passed since he’d caressed anything this fine.
He was no confident seducer now. He was a coarse, humble farmhand with his hand under a well-bred lady’s skirt. In a house full of sleeping people who might wake at any moment. The pleasure was deliciously forbidden. The potent rush of arousal was like life itself. And the crisp rustle of her petticoat was the most arousing sound he’d ever heard.
Unable to resist, he slipped his hand up her calf. He pressed two fingertips to the hollow of her knee. A warm pulse fluttered beneath his touch.
“Christian…” Her voice was breathy. Needy.
He ought to leave, he told himself. He must flee before the militia descended, or it would all be over. His career—and perhaps his life, as well—depended on his making a swift exit.
But his soul needed this.
He eased closer, resting his brow on her shoulder. “Give me another chance, Violet. I have so little to offer you, and we have so little time. Let me give you pleasure, at least. ” He swept his hand farther up her leg. “Let me show you how good it can be. ”
As he caressed her thigh, Violet’s breath left her lungs in a long, languid sigh.
“Violet. ” His lips grazed her throat.
Was this truly happening? Was she truly allowing it to happen, again?
As he kissed her neck, he nudged her chin upward. She let her head roll back in implicit surrender. While his hot tongue drew wicked patterns on her skin, she stared up at the ballroom’s Christmas splendor. The unlit chandelier branched high above. Lush red and green swags festooned the columns, and gold-foiled cut stars dangled from the ceiling beams.
He bent his head to her décolletage, nuzzling the exposed tops of her breasts. He trailed little kisses along her neckline. All the while, his questing fingertips climbed the slope of her inner thigh. His touch, while rougher than before, still left her damp and yearning. Just as it had that first night.
“Let me show you,” he murmured. “There’s so much pleasure to be shared. ”
He slid his hand between her legs.
Oh. Oh, so good.
Her nipples drew to tight points as he stroked her there. She twisted a little, letting the sensitive tips chafe against the restrictive boundary of her corset. He was teasing her, and she teased herself. Making the ache so sweet, so good. Making everything worse.
“Yes,” he moaned, pushing aside the folds of her drawers. “This time, I’ll do right by you. ”
His words gave her the jolt of reality she needed. He’d do right by her, he said. How, precisely? By using her body, then leaving in the morning?
“Stop. ” She clamped her thighs together, trapping his fingers. “Stop. ”
He kept right on kissing her cleavage. “Darling, I promise, this time I’ll make it good. Better than good. We can make bliss, between us. Greater joy than you’ve ever dreamed. ”
He stretched his trapped fingers, striving to reach her intimate flesh.
She tightened the vise of her thighs. “Truly. Do you truly believe you can stumble in here tonight, rave nonsense in an obscure language, drug my protector, and—despite the wrong you did me last time—convince me to lie back and lift my skirts for you? Here on the floor, in the center of a ballroom? Do you really think I’m that foolish?”